Select Committee on European Scrutiny Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Brendan Donnelly, Deputy Leader of the Pro-Euro Conservative Party


  This "disconnection" varies in degree between individual Member States. Similarly, the reasons underlying it vary from country to country. In some countries, there is a fear that the European single market is simply a local mask for unchecked globalization, with all its attendant economic and political ills. In other countries, the stabilization of state finances necessary to enter the euro has led citizens to fear for levels of welfare provision. In yet others, the reduction of regional and agricultural expenditure in individual Member States has led to a cooling of European enthusiasm. In a limited number, notably Denmark and the United Kingdom, a political debate has been kindled which calls into doubt the whole philosophical and legal basis on which those countries can remain members of a sovereignty-sharing European Union.

  Against this background, there are a number of things the European Union can and must do to make itself more efficient and accountable. These will emerge in response to later questions. But national attitudes towards the European Union and its institutions are primarily formed by national governments and national political elites, operating to shape opinion in their own countries. National governments have made a poor job of explaining to their electorates the necessity and desirability of increasing international trade competition, of balanced national budgets, of welfare reform, of the reduction of agricultural and regional subsidies. All too often, they have preferred to blame "brussels" for decisions in which national governments have themselves participated, and which in the long run are beneficial to national electorates.

  Europe's institutions can and should be improved. But this improvement will count for little unless it is accompanied by advocacy of and education about their role by national governments. This is particularly true of the United Kingdom, where successive governments have refused to enter into a serious discussion of the European Union's institutional structure. Caricature and over-simplification are the order of the day, both among the European Union's critics and its supporters. The level of the debate is well illustrated by the fate of the term "federalism". On any rational definition of the word, the European Union is a "federal" structure, which the United Kingdom has freely decided to join. Yet even many of those supposedly sympathetic to the European Union in this country seem reluctant to accept that reality. How far this federal structure is to be developed is a matter of legitimate political debate. What is not is that as long as Britain remains in the European Union, it will continue to have an important part of its governance decided in and through Europe's federal institutions. Unambiguous explanation of this reality (which has nothing to do with the bogey of a European "superstate") by the British government would go a long way towards reconnecting British citizens to the European Union.


  It is an exaggeration to think of the Council of Ministers as a particularly secretive body. Lobbying groups in Brussels and Strasbourg find little difficulty in gaining access to individuals and documents. Nevertheless, the Council should certainly legislate in public. To do otherwise simply fuels criticism of the supposedly "anti-democratic" nature of the European Union. Public voting in the Council would also have a useful educative aspect, forcing governments to explain why they voted as they did, and occasionally accepting that they have been outvoted. At the national level, national Parliaments should be given, and make use of, the greatest possible opportunity to comment on proposed legislation. This is not simply a question of deadlines and procedures. It is also a question of the willingness of national governments to be frank with their Parliamentarians, and the willingness of national Parliamentarians to take the necessary time for thorough scrutiny.


  National referendums are a matter for national governments, who both call them and are bound or guided by them. It would be inappropriate for recourse to national referendums to be imposed by any European decision. Equally, in its response to national referendums, the EU should take its cue from the appropriate national government.

  While the concept of Europe-wide referendums has some theoretical attraction, it would involve a degree of sovereignty-pooling well beyond that currently accepted. It is difficult to imagine the electors of this country being willing to accept a decision against which they had voted, even if there were a substantial majority for the proposal in the rest of the EU.


  In general terms, it must be more appropriate that those who exercise executive and political power like that of the Commission, should do so on the basis of a democratic mandate. Simple nomination after negotiations between national governments cannot be sufficient. For the role of the European Parliament in this matter to be enhanced would be a natural evolution of present trends. It is difficult to imagine a Europe-wide election for the President of the Commission. The number and identity of the candidates would be contentious, and it is not clear that a contest between, say, a German Christian Democrat, a Greek Socialist and a Dutch Liberal would awake great interest in France, the UK or Italy. As long as each Member State has the right to nominate its own Commissioner(s), a national election for national Commissioners would be conceivable. The matter will become much more complicated if and when not every country has its own representative in the Commission.


  The legislative arrangements of the European Union are already long and cumbersome. The introduction of a new institutional element, such as a "second Chamber" of national Parliamentarians, would risk making these arrangements more complicated, and consequently less transparent. Nor would there be any real gain in democratic accountability. If national Parliaments are unable to hold their national governments properly to account in national capitals, there is no obvious reason why they should make a better job of it in Brussels. Much of the impetus behind the proposal for a Chamber of national Parliamentarians springs from the hope that the institutions of the EU can be "renationalized". Even if this were a desirable goal, it is highly unlikely that the necessary consensus could ever be developed among the existing Member States of the EU for it to happen.


  See question 2. In general, the existing democratic scrutiny of European legislation is considerably better than its critics allow.


  It must primarily be for the institutions of the EU to inform the public about their day to day activities. But, for the reasons set out above, national Parliamentarians and governments have a central role to play in shaping wider public attitudes towards the EU and its institutions. As to the role of national Parliaments in channelling public views to EU institutions, two factors should be borne in mind. First, the political, regional and social background of individual MPs will inevitably shape their perception of public opinion. There would, for instance, be no consensus within the British Parliament on what the British public might think about direct election of the Commission President. Second, Members of the European Parliament would rightly regard themselves as following the movements of national opinion on European issues just as closely as their colleagues in national capitals. If European institutions are out of touch with public opinion, then MEPs are failing in an important part of their job.


  An agreed delineation of competences between national governments and the European Union would be reassuring to those who fear a never-ending process of transferring power to Brussels. The government, therefore, has every interest in achieving such a delineation. It should not be checked in its attempts to do so by the likelihood that some will describe any such settlement as a "constitution for the European Union". The Treaty of Rome and its successors are already part of the British constitution. A European constitution is something to be welcomed rather than feared. If a workable definition of "subsidiarity" can be incorporated into that constitution, so much the better. It must, however, be doubtful whether agreement would be possible between the existing 15 Member States on a statement of the EU's purpose that was both substantial and clear.

  Discussion of a "variable speed Europe" has gained in currency over recent years, with the growing imminence of enlargement. But it seems likely that those countries joining the EU in the near future will be eager to participate as soon as possible in as many of the Union's policy areas as possible. For them, a variable Europe would seem the equivalent of a second rate status for themselves. In the monetary field, a variable speed Europe already exists, with Britain, Sweden and Denmark remaining outside the euro. This decision of the three governments was based, at least in part, on pre-existing "disconnection" in their countries from the European institutions. It would be difficult to argue that this "disconnection" has been lessened by remaining outside the euro.


  At a working level, the contribution of regional and local government to the European Union is already immense. Nobody working in the European Commission or Parliament can be unaware of the energy and effectiveness with which sub-national authorities pursue their interests. This work of local and regional authorities is underpinned by the Committee of the Regions. If changes are to be made in the direction of greater representation for Europe's regions, the existing Committee of the Regions is the obvious starting-point. A genuine check, however, on the development of this Committee is the wide variety of regional and local government structures between and even within the European Union's Member States. The United Kingdom is very much a case in point. Its largest element, England, has no regional government structure. Its second largest, Scotland, enjoys a large measure of regional autonomy, while its third, Wales, has substantially less devolved power than Scotland. A special devolved arrangement currently obtains in Northern Ireland. How and by whom Britain's regions should be corporately represented in Brussels is only one of a series of brain-teasers facing any attempts to extend the powers of the Committee of the Regions.


  The European Parliament is an essential building block of the European Union's democratic structure. It performs at a supranational level many of the tasks performed at a national level by Westminster, the Bundestag or the Cortes. It does not provide a government for the European Union, but it does scrutinize on a day-to-day basis the legislative and executive acts of the European Commission and of the Council of Ministers. The more fully and consistently the European Parliament is associated with the workings of the Commission and the Council, the more democratic an organization the European Union becomes.

  On an individual basis, and within Member States, there is certainly much more that could be done to encourage co-operation between national and European parliamentarians. Both sides would benefit from greater personal and social exchanges, reciprocal rights of access to buildings, speaking rights in committees, joint working groups and a variety of other shared projects. But it must be stressed that the spheres of operation of the European Parliament and of national Parliaments are different, running in parallel to each other. It will never be possible for the European Parliament to hold national governments to account, even in their European policies. In the same way, it will never be possible for national Parliaments to hold the European Commission or the Council of Ministers corporately to account. These differing roles are sometimes ignored in proposals for enhanced institutional co-operation between the European Parliament and national Parliaments. Any new bodies or procedures can only work fruitfully if they fully reflect the distinct, although complementary responsibilities of national and European Parliamentarians in the EU's institutional structure. Any attempt by either national or European Parliamentarians to encroach on each other's competences is doomed to failure.


  It seems highly unlikely that national governments will be prepared genuinely to cede to outside bodies their right to determine the future structure of the European Union. Whatever conventions, committees of wise men or special representatives are set up over the next two years, the outcome of the next Inter Governmental Conference will almost certainly be determined exclusively by negotiations between the fifteen governments, culminating in a European summit.

3 October 2001

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